Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Review: “The Blog of War” by Matthew Currier Burden

Several of my friends who have served recently in the military recommended that I read “The Blog of War: Front-line Dispatches from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The author, a former paratrooper, Special Operations officer and DIA intelligence officer, has edited and woven together Blog postings from Iraq and Afghanistan. The result is a sobering and powerful book that allows the noncombatant a brief series of glimpses into the lives of those about to be deployed, those left behind, those in battle, those wounded, those returning home and those who gave their last full measure of devotion.

The book took on an even more compelling cast for me when I discovered that I know one of the Bloggers quoted in the book: Chaplain Brad Lewis, a Captain in the U.S. Army. I met Chaplain Lewis last summer when he officiated at the wedding of my friend, John Serafini. Based on my personal observations of Chaplain Lewis and the respect and affection accorded him by the soldiers he has ministered to, it is clear that he was a good choice to represent the chaplaincy in this book. His thoughts about Spiritual Warfare appear on pages 80-82 of "The Blog of War."

In light of the current controversy over the quality of medical care available to our troops – on the battlefield and at home – the chapter entitled “The Healers” becomes especially poignant. Consider this excerpt that succinctly demonstrates humanity winning out over bureaucracy in a critical moment. The context is that a critically ill soldier from a Chinook crew that had come under attack is just coming out of surgery, and his friends want to be sure he is OK. An Army nurse in charge of the Combat Hospital Blogs here recollections of the events:

“The gunner had just come out of surgery and the nurse doing his recovery did not want any visitors as the ICU was crowded, busy, and the gunner was not awake anyway. We had 5 other wounded in the ICU from that crash. All were about to get loaded up on the flight to Baghdad in less than an hour. I came out to tell the rest of the crews that they couldn’t visit. The CSH Chief Ward master was there and he gently pulled me aside to suggest I allow these guys in to see the gunner anyway, one at a time. Seems he saw the guys’ faces when I said the patient couldn’t have visitors. They needed to see that their crewman was alive and ‘all right.’ I forgot, in the midst of this busy night, of the loss that these soldiers were facing – they lost 2 men out of a 5-man crew, and had just spent many hours looking for the missing 5th. I returned to the ICU and told the recovering nurse that we were going to let these guys in - one at a time.

I am never so humbled as when I lose sight of the cost in human lives and human emotions. To me it was another mini-mascal (mass casualty), trying to ensure these guys get the best care by stretching resources, staff and equipment. To them, it was a man of their crew, whom they lived with and worked with for the last 6 months, and were responsible for. I overlooked that. I am sorry. I wish I could apologize. I see so many come through here. Most leave here alive and recovering. And a very few leave through mortuary affairs. I can still name every one who left here that way on my shift. I met every one of them. When I can no longer remember their names, or care to, that is the time I need to get the hell out of this country.” (Pages 73-74)

In the chapter entitled, “Leaders, Warriors, and Diplomats,” Captain Danjel Bout, a California National Guard battalion staff officer assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division commanded an air assault infantry company in Iraq. He writes a moving piece about American soldiers struggling to save the life of a little Iraqi girl, who became “collateral damage” during an insurgent attack on Election Day. Capt. Bout ends his account with these reflections on the saving of that young life:

“Ten years from now, our unit will have long since passed out of the local memory, the desert swallowing any physical trace of our year in the Land of Two Rivers. But there will be one living, beating heart that will bear testament to our company’s mission and the good we tried to do. And right now that somehow seems enough.” (Page 104)

Later in the same chapter, Corporal Michael Bautista, a cavalry scout with the Idaho National Guard, writes about his thoughts after being treated by one Iraqi family as a neighbor instead of an occupying soldier:

“I shall never forget the 10 minutes I spent with this family. No conversations of substance transpired, no earth-shattering foreign policy formed. Simply hospitality and gratitude; just smiles, body language and handshakes. For a while, there was no fighting, no explosions, no terrorist possibly lurking around the corner. Even though I was in full combat gear, sharp steel sheathed, ammunition and explosives strapped to my chest, rifle slung at my front, for a moment, I was just a guy enjoying a hot beverage and some candy with the neighbors.” (Page 125)

First Sergeant James Thomson served in an aviation unit in Afghanistan. His account of finding a way to motivate a discouraged soldier is an inspiring tale of true leadership in the face of overwhelming odds. A seasoned platoon sergeant was asking permission to transfer to another unit a non-productive soldier who was in “meltdown” mode. 1st Sgt. Thomson asked to see the soldier before rendering his decision. She appeared and he asked:

“What’s going on, Willis?”

“Nothing, First Sergeant,” came the expected reply.

“Oh, so you normally sit up here all night crying?” I asked

She looked at me. It was obvious she had been crying for a while and was very upset.

“Look, Willis, if you’re upset about something, and it’s obvious that you are, I can’t fix it unless you tell me what ‘it’ is,” I explained to her.

Taking a deep breath, she went on to tell me that she feels very unwelcome and useless to the unit because she’s stashed away every night listening to the radios and waiting for the phone that never rings to ring. It became pretty clear to me that she needed to feel more productive. I explained to her that I could find her a reassignment if she wanted, but that wasn’t what I wanted and that I didn’t think it would help as her MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) just isn’t critical in this environment.

“I could, however, move you out of the CP (Command Post) working alongside other Soldiers within the unit that produces more visible results,” I offered. . . “Willis, you want out of this lonely, boring, radio-watch job or not?” I asked the tough kid form LA.

“Yes, First sergeant, that would be much better,” she answered.

I asked her to give me two days to work out a replacement for her in the CP, and to give me 100% during those two days, and I’d get her out of there. She agreed. . . SPC Willis is now working with a smile on her face and dirt on her hands and only complains about being tired at the end of the day. I think she might even reenlist. (Pages 127-128)

One of the most riveting parts of the book is found in the chapter entitled: “Heroes of the Homefront.” Retired Army Lt. Col. Tim Fitzgerald shares his fears for the safety of his wife, Captain Patti Fitzgerald, while she serves with the 1st Armored Division in Iraq. I offer this extended excerpt because the emotions described parallel those I feel when I hear of a death in Iraq and Afghanistan and I fear for those I know who are serving there.


I don’t know what else to call the . . . the analogy is apt in my mind.

They are the intellectual construct by which I deal with the barrage of bad news from Baghdad. They work for me . . . I’m not sure how others do it . . . and I’ll be honest: in the end, my fences are very, very selfish.

The fences come into play when I hear or read a news report that says ‘Another soldier killed today.’

I listen carefully. If the report says the tragedy took place somewhere other than Baghdad I am relieved . . . all my fences are intact. But if the report is from Baghdad . . . the bad news just breached the first of my fences.

And so I search some more . . . I search the Internet. I look for any clue. Sometimes the report will indicate the Soldier belonged to the 4th Infantry Division or the 82nd Airborne Division. If so . . . my second fence remains solid.

. . .

These are my fences . . . I don’t have to ensure they are rational.

. . .

I wonder sometimes about those who don’t need fences . . . because they have no personal stake in this war. And I wonder how that feels. I can’t remember how that feels.

. . .

And so I build my fences. I build as many as I can . . . as strong as I can. I bolster them with prayers and scripture and bravado and probability and sometimes too many glasses of wine.

I vent my anger to strangers on the Internet and my hopes to that tiny inner circle of the trust friends.

I build my fences and polish them with optimism. I hiss loudly at trespassers who would cheapen the value of my investment.

‘Stay away from my stake! Don’t stain it with your fingerprints. . I don’t know what it cost me yet!’

My fences keep me sane.” (Pages 187-189)

There are moving passages about survivors’ guilt, the family version of survivor’s guilt, the challenges in coming back home. For those who want to understand what our troops and their families are experiencing through prolonged and multiple deployments, this book shines a painful and helpful light on these struggles.

The chapter entitled “The Fallen” is particularly moving. Annapolis graduate, Naval Reserve Lt. Scott Koenig pays tribute to his fallen classmate, a Renaissance Man by the name of Kylan Jones–Huffman. The loss of this brilliant officer is emblematic to me of the extraordinary men and women whose lives have been sacrificed in fighting the War against Terror.

“Kylan’s major field of study was history, and he was quite a gifted student. He enrolled in the honors program, and had earned several credits towards his Master’s Degree in History by the time we graduated. After graduation, I went off to Newport, Rhode Island, for Surface Warfare Officers School, and Kylan went to the University of Maryland to finish up his Master’s . . . A couple of week’s ago, the selection message for Lt. Commander came out, and I spotted Kylan’s name on it. ‘I wonder what he’s up to these days,’ I thought.

Turns out that Kylan had been busy these many years. Always gifted at languages, he had learned to speak German, French, Arabic, and Farsi, the predominant language of Iran. This aptitude for languages had earned him a job with Naval Intelligence. . . On August 21, two days before I boarded my flight home from Kuwait, Lt. Kylan Jones-Huffman was shot and killed wile riding in an SUV near the town of Al Hillah. His unit was stationed in Bahrain, and he was only supposed to visit Iraq for one week.” (Pages 215-216)

I close with one final excerpt from a portion of the book that moved me deeply. Major Brian shares a very poignant and personal narrative of his duty of escorting the remains of Special Operations soldiers and Navy SEALS to Germany on their way home to the United States:

“When the door finally opened and I made my way to the front of the aircraft, I noticed something different about the last casket I would pass. There was something on the flag. Thinking that something had fallen form a rucksack on the way out the door, I reached to remove it before I saw that it was a dogtag with an inscription. I touched it briefly, then continued out the door, and standing on the ramp with the cool, early morning German rain streaming down my face I considered the inscription I just read:

‘And I heard the voice of the Lord saying “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said “Here am I! Send me!” Isaiah 6:8 (Page221)

Reading these words prompts me to shed tears for those who have fallen and for those they have left beyond, and causes me to pause and pray for our sons and daughters who still fight – they who have volunteered and have said: “Send me!”


1 comment:

dchase said...

I truly believe you should send this as email to the president's office, the vice president's office, the speaker of the House, the minority whip in the House and Senate.

Yes, it will be read by some flunky but the more the word gets out the better.

In fact you should also send it to the Democrats because they are not doing anything either. You never might just be seen by the right eyes.